• Posted Jun 3, 2002

Shape magazine did the work for you and found the 6 best ab exercises ever.

You’re not greedy. You’re not asking for a six-pack. You’d settle for a slightly flatter look and a bit more muscle tone. But no matter how many crunches you do, it seems impossible to firm and define those elusive middle muscles.

Given America’s obsession with abs, you’d think we’d have figured it out by now. But many of us are still frustrated by a lack of results. What are we doing wrong? Should we be doing different exercises? What else can we do to transform our soft abs?

To clear the air, Shape consulted Bill Whiting, Ph.D., director of the biomechanics laboratory in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, to help us test 36 different ab moves and determine which ones best target your core muscles: your abs and lower back.

Using an electromyograph (EMG) instrument, we measured the effectiveness of ab exercises on surface muscles--the rectus abdominis, external obliques, erector spinae (lower back) and rectus femoris (a hip flexor and primary quadriceps muscle). (Because EMG cannot accurately measure activity of muscles deep within the body, we were not able to test the other main abdominal muscles, the internal obliques and the transversus.) After we saw how the moves rated, we put together an ab workout to best strengthen your core muscles.

Targeting these muscles is essential for a complete ab program: They function as movers whenever you bend down to pick up something, and they play a role in posture and stabilization in all of your daily activities, from lifting weights to holding the Triangle pose. “Could you develop your abs by just doing crunches? Sure,” Whiting says. “But a broad, balanced program is better.”

Remember: The best exercises in the world won’t do diddly if you do them incorrectly. “You can’t lie on the ground and expect your ab muscles to respond just because you’re crunching,” Whiting says. “You need to think about setting up each exercise correctly, then contracting your muscles and breathing properly as you’re doing the moves.” Here you’ll find everything you need to know to perfect your technique.

Get Maximum Results By July 1 Pay Attention to Form Take a little time to set up each exercise so that your alignment is correct. Every rep should be smooth and controlled (no jerking or yanking on your neck).

Activate Your Abs In this workout, you’re creating your own resistance. Keep your ab muscles contracted from the start to finish of each move. As you contract, pull your navel in toward your spine, your obliques toward the center of your body and your hips toward your ribs. “Visualize your muscles working; it can help you isolate them,” says kinesiologist Bill Whiting, Ph.D.

Breathe In and Out If you’re not breathing properly, the pressure on your ab region may fool your abs into thinking they’re working harder than they are, Whiting says. Start by filling your rib cage and diaphragm with oxygen; then slowly exhale as you contract your abs. (Follow the breathing cues for each move.)

Shed Body Fat Do 30–45 minutes of cardio work 4–5 times per week, lift weights 2–3 times per week, and pay attention to what you eat.

View the workout

Originally featured in: Shape April, 2001

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